Authors: Mary Catherine Bateson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American anthropologist

Author Works


Arab Language Handbook, 1967

Structural Continuity in Poetry: A Linguistic Study of Five Pre-Islamic Odes, 1970

Our Own Metaphor: A Personal Account of a Conference on the Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation, 1972

With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, 1984

Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred, 1987 (with Gregory Bateson)

Thinking AIDS, 1988 (with Richard Goldsby)

Composing a Life, 1989

Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way, 1994

Full Circles, Overlapping Lives: Culture and Generation in Transition, 2000


Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of distinguished anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, maintained a close relationship with both parents, despite their frequent absences as they pursued careers and then divorced in 1950. In 1956 Bateson decided to spend her senior high school year in Israel, learning Hebrew and Arabic. At Radcliffe College she concentrated on Arabic, graduating magna cum laude in 1960. That year Bateson married Barkev Kassarjian, a student in the Harvard Business School. In 1963 she earned a Ph.D. in linguistics and Near Eastern studies; her dissertation analyzed five pre-Islamic poems. From 1963 to 1966 she was an instructor in Arabic at Harvard.{$I[A]Bateson, Mary Catherine}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Bateson, Mary Catherine}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Bateson, Mary Catherine}{$I[tim]1939;Bateson, Mary Catherine}

Bateson accompanied her husband to the Philippines in 1966, when he accepted a position advising on management education. Realizing there was no demand for Arabic, she moved into the field of cultural anthropology, which she taught at the Ateneo de Manila University from 1966 to 1968. While in the Philippines, she had a son who died; her daughter, Sevanne Margaret, was born in 1969 after Bateson’s return to the United States.

When her husband accepted an offer, in 1972, to join the Iran Center for Management Studies in Tehran, Bateson and their daughter accompanied him. Bateson taught anthropology and assisted in establishing new universities in the interior of Iran. The family returned to the United States in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution broke out.

In 1980 Bateson became dean of faculty at Amherst College. The experience proved a bitter one. She did not feel that tenured faculty at the newly coeducational college welcomed women. When the president of Amherst died suddenly in 1983, Bateson expected to be named acting president. However, a committee of senior faculty members, meeting without her, advised the board of trustees against her appointment; the board chose the chairman of the faculty committee instead. Bateson remained at Amherst until 1986 but spent much of the time on leave, concentrating on her writing. In 1986 she accepted an offer from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, of a named professorship which required teaching in only the spring semester, leaving the rest of the year free for writing. Bateson spent autumns with her husband in Cambridge and summers at their home in New Hampshire.

In the gracefully written tribute to her parents, With a Daughter’s Eye, Bateson noted, “In my family, we never simply live, we are always reflecting on our lives.” Each of her major works contains significant biographical material as she reconsiders and reexamines her life. Composing a Life explored different ways in which Bateson thought about her own life as she recounted the way four other women “composed,” or restructured, their lives when they faced difficulties. Bateson described how she managed to keep advancing her own career, despite having decided that her husband’s job opportunities would take precedence, and the family would move wherever his work took them. She revisited her unhappy experiences at Amherst several times in the book, revealing her hurt and anger as she pondered the reasons the board of trustees rejected her appointment as president.

In Peripheral Visions Bateson’s argument that learning was a lifelong process drew upon examples from her life, principally from her years overseas in Israel, the Philippines, and Iran. She stressed the value of encountering other cultures in order to understand oneself and the world. Full Circles, Overlapping Lives, based on a seminar given in the spring of 1996 at Spelman College, an all-black women’s college in Atlanta, drew upon autobiographical essays by the participants as well as Bateson’s own life. The students included undergraduates and mature women, permitting Bateson to explore the ways different generations dealt with comparable problems.

In January, 1997, Bateson came down with a mysterious illness, later diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome. Two years passed before she could resume writing and lecturing with confidence. Bateson was scholar-in-residence at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in the 2000-2001 school year and a visiting professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2001-2002. In 2001 Bateson announced her intention to take early retirement in 2002.

BibliographyBateson, Mary Catherine. “Mary Catherine Bateson.” Interview by Missy Daniel. Publishers Weekly 241 (May 30, 1994): 31-32. Interview with Bateson upon publication of Peripheral Visions.Bateson, Mary Catherine. “My Mother, My Daughter.” Interview by Diane Granat. Washingtonian 30 (May, 1995): 56-59. Interview in which Bateson reflects on her career and family life.Mead, Margaret. Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years. New York: William Morrow, 1972. Part 3 describes Mead’s relationship with her daughter and granddaughter.O’Reilly, Jane. “Any Woman Is an Outsider.” The New York Times Book Review, November 26, 1989, p. 7. Feminist review of Composing a Life.Warrick, Pamela. “Piecing Together a Lifetime of Success Books.” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1991, sec. E, pp. 1, 4. Describes the critical and popular reception of Composing a Life.
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